Entertainment

Influencer Boxing Is the Circus-Sport America Deserves

Companies like Triller know influencers come with an audience, and matches often pay way more than traditional fights. It’s a match made in heaven.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
April 22, 2021, 3:12pm
Jake Paul fights Ben Askren in T cruiserweight bout

Sports, entertainment, and unfettered greed are a match made in heaven. Just look at Danny DeVito’s character in Space Jam. Mr. Swackhammer, voiced by DeVito, wants to imprison top athlete Michael Jordan on a basketball court at an amusement park in outer space in order to use him as children’s entertainment and make lots of money. Back on Earth, we’re seeing similar gambits play out within our own species.

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This past weekend, millions of Americans gawked from home as YouTuber Jake Paul knocked out former mixed martial arts world champion Ben Askren in just under two minutes. The match marked the buzzworthy conclusion of the inaugural weekend of  Triller Fight Club, a series of boxing matches hosted by short-form video sharing app Triller, in partnership with Snoop Dogg. Broadcasting from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, the event featured such celebrities as Oscar De La Hoya, Pete Davidson, and Snoop himself as commentators—and drew in tens of millions dollars on $50 tickets, with at least 1 million views

Featuring musical performances from Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg, Too $hort, Ice Cube, E-40, and Doja Cat, Triller Fight Club is the brainchild of  a company best known as a TikTok rival—but that has spent the past few years evolving into something of a media conglomerate. After the investment firm Proxima Media became a majority owner of Triller in 2019, the company raised $100 million, acquired music battle platform Verzuz, launched an NFT marketplace, and, as of November, started hosting pay-per-view celebrity boxing matches. 

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The odd, filled-with-money-but-still-hollow feeling of Triller Fight Club is perhaps the best encapsulation of our current cultural moment: Lured in part by a guaranteed payday, a celebrity pads a record for their new boxing career—which has nothing to do with the reason they’re famous—by fighting arguable athletic mismatches. Fans of Paul may know Ben Askren as a former MMA fighter and Olympic wrestler, so the fact that Paul stepped into the ring in the first place is interesting in itself. 

What audiences might not know is that the 36-year-old Askren was known for being a poor boxer, and that he retired from MMA in 2019 in part due to a hip injury. The spectacle of a 24-year-old YouTuber making light work of an older opponent feels like the perfect encapsulation of the mechanics of contemporary fame: We watch as already-famous personalities forge boxing careers out of thin air, on the backs of athletes who have been chewed up and spat out by the athletic industrial complex, with Justin Bieber providing the soundtrack.

At Saturday’s weigh-in before the fight, Paul ridiculed Askren, pointing out his “beer belly” as proof he’d not trained for the bout seriously. Askren was compensated with a $500,000 purse from Triller for his troubles. Paul, an investor in Triller, received a $690,000 purse. Earlier in his boxing career, Paul defeated the five-foot-nine former NBA athlete Nate Robinson in November 2020. In August 2018, Paul beat Deji, a British YouTuber. He now carries a 3-0 boxing record.

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The depravity of these spectacles is part of the appeal. It’s a blatant money grab—and even the commentators seemed to admit as much. On his way to conduct a pre-fight interview with Paul, Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson cited the event as proof that “if you have enough followers, you can truly fuckin’ do whatever you want.” During the broadcast, Davidson said Paul was “not a good person” and mentioned that Paul’s house was raided by the FBI last year. (Recently, Paul was also accused of sexual assault, an allegation he has denied.)

It's a joke that even the competitors seem to be in on. In the hours leading up to his fight against Jake Paul, Ben Askren posted a Tweet that summed up the situation pretty succinctly: “People love fist fights. People love circuses. Hope you enjoy tonight.” It was a statement that could just as easily describe why people watch reality television, visit Worldstar or YouTube, and stick around when a bachelor party enters the bar: We’re drawn to spectacles with the potential for mayhem. 

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The calculus for throwing anyone with millions of followers into the ring, ultimately, is not that different from buying followers on Instagram until you become a bona fide Influencer. Instead of building up boxers over time, you can convince someone with lots of followers to enter the sport. And not even Triller's own executives are pretending that it's anything more than that. As Bert Marcus, Triller’s show director, said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “This isn’t sports, it’s entertainment that has sports.”

The “IRL Celebrity Deathmatch” is not a new concept; Triller merely appears to have expanded the budget. Previous iterations of the genre include Jose Canseco fighting in a ballroom at a Massachusetts Sheraton in 2009, as part of an event hosted by Celebrity Boxing Federation. His opponent, Todd Poulton, has since become a figure of notoriety in his own right as a Trump supporter with a Tyson-inspired face tattoo. Herein lies the power of the symbiotic clout exchange: Canseco drew a crowd, and Todd Poulton was able to build a personality around being the guy who got in the ring with Canseco.

Sometimes these blatant attention grabs have gone too far even for American audiences. In 2014, boxing promoter Damon Feldman announced a match between the late DMX and George Zimmerman, who had become a household name after fatally shooting a Black teenager a few years before. (To the outrage of many Americans, he was found not guilty of murder and acquitted of manslaughter.) Following backlash, the fight was cancelled before it took place, and a statement from DMX’s camp claimed he’d never agreed to the fight.  

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There are parallels to this movement overseas, most notably with the formation of the European Super League, a breakaway organization for the wealthiest football clubs in Europe, whose founding teams are guaranteed a spot in the league in perpetuity. “It’s not a sport if you can’t lose,” said Manchester City Football Club manager Pep Guardiola about the League, which collapsed before turning a week old. The same logic applies to the Paul-Askren fight: One side expected to emerge victorious, and the other expected the biggest payday of his career. Everybody wins. 

Here in the States, the trend seems to be picking up speed. On June 5, streaming platform LiveXLive will host a “TikTokers vs. YouTubers” pay-per-view boxing match, featuring such fights as TikTok personality Bryce Hall squaring up against former NCAA basketball athlete and YouTuber Austin McBroom. Diplo—who performed at the Paul fight—will be making his boxing debut for Triller Fight Club that same day. His opponent has yet to be announced. 

On the surface, it's understandable why certain celebrities and athletes might want to put their hat in the ring: These events offer a check and some publicity. But watching this weekend's spectacle of a former MMA athlete joining a novelty event like Triller Fight Club begs a question: What led Askren to Triller in the first place?

“MMA pay is criminally low,” Trent Reinsmith, a journalist who covers mixed martial arts, told VICE. As revealed in an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed by several UFC fighters, Reinsmith said, the UFC pays fighters less than 20 percent of its total revenue—a striking amount compared with other major league sports like basketball and baseball, which pay out roughly 50% of revenues to athletes. Despite the brutal beatdowns Askren has both received and delivered in his MMA career, Askren has said that the Triller appearance compensated him more than all of his UFC appearances combined

We may laugh off the spectacle and sheer capital thrown at celebrity-led boxing ventures, but if there is anything reminiscent of a reality star beating up an older athlete to pad his record, it is the 2016 Republican National Convention. Both featured a new entrant beating up on establishment players. In the case of influencer boxing, we just don’t know what happens next.